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Last week, Armando Iannucci phoned me from his home in London, where he’s been sequestered with his wife and teenage son. “I’m currently self-isolating for 14 days because I came into contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus,” he says. “I’m living in the top of the house, away from everyone.”
Iannucci was on day four of his self-isolation, and said he was feeling fine. He’s been keeping himself occupied writing the second season of his HBO series Avenue 5, a space comedy set aboard an interplanetary cruise ship that’s veered well off-course, and promoting the digital release of The Personal History of David Copperfield, his delightful adaptation of the Dickens novel.
The film, tracing Copperfield’s journey from child to factory worker to gentleman, is the rare Victorian era costume drama to feature a diverse cast, with Dev Patel portraying Copperfield and Rosalind Eleazar as his loyal friend (and eventual love), Agnes Wickfield. There’s also Peter Capaldi, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Benedict Wong, and Ben Whishaw for good measure.
Copperfield is more than anything a commentary on class. During his time stateside shooting the HBO series Veep, Iannucci was taken by how different American attitudes toward class and social mobility were from his native U.K. “One of the things that I took most from my time in America is how you actually revel in the fact that it doesn’t really matter what your circumstances were, or where you were born. You’re still entitled to think you can do anything,” said Iannucci. “Obviously, there are certain parts of the country where it’s very difficult for people to progress, but in Baltimore, where we shot Veep, I got the feeling that people weren’t being judged by their accent or how they dressed. I sensed more of a celebration of individuality.”
In addition to Veep, the 56-year-old Scot has crafted The Thick of It, as well as the films In the Loop and The Death of Stalin, making him the godfather of the political screwball comedy. And even he is in complete shock at the behavior of outgoing President Donald Trump, who’s released a barrage of increasingly conspiracy-minded tweets questioning the results of the recent presidential election that he lost by a considerable margin. “He’s like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, just having a conversation with himself,” cracked Iannucci.
Over the course of our talk, we touched on Copperfield, the British royal family, the legacy of Veep, and the Trump of it all.
It’s interesting that the film was released in “virtual” cinemas in August, during the pandemic, and now out digitally. Do you feel the film hits differently given the poverty—or prospect of it—that so many are now facing?
Hopefully the message of hope that it gives, and the appreciation and sense of community—family and friends, those who look after you… the response I’ve been getting in the U.K. is that it takes people away from the darker story outside, and can reaffirm the positivity that they feel for other people. And hopefully get a laugh as well!
Was this a therapeutic exercise for you? Putting something positive out into the world?
Oh, I suppose it was! After five or six years of Veep, and then The Death of Stalin—which I enjoyed making, but it involved us looking very close-up at bleak and horrific behavior—I knew I wanted to make something that was more uplifting, without being overly wholesome and overly saccharine.
Was that in response to the chaos you were seeing in the world, with Brexit and the Trump circus?
Yes, it was a mix of politics and also the Brexit thing, which was in danger of allowing Britain to be portrayed as a nation of very insular, inward-looking, unfriendly people, whereas that’s not true. I think Britain has been a very outgoing, generous, creative, and humorous country. So I wanted to celebrate that—but in a contemporary way, even though it’s set 150 years ago, because I felt that side of who we are has gone a bit unheard underneath all the doom and gloom.
AN EXCLUSIVE BEHIND-THE-SCENES CLIP FROM ‘THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD’:
And British costume dramas have historically been very white, which of course wouldn’t provide opportunities for actors of color. Were you keen to disrupt that?
Oh, absolutely. I knew when I was making it that I didn’t want to follow the norms of how a costume drama was made, because then why am I making it as opposed to someone who makes those films? It was about it feeling very real, and alive. The feelings in it are very modern. It’s all about status anxiety and imposter syndrome. We made the film acknowledging the accuracy of the look of the period—getting the costumes, the wallpaper exactly right—but saying, “This is a film for you now.” And also, I was obsessed with the idea of Dev playing David, because he is David Copperfield. He just felt like the most perfect guy for the role. And if you’re doing that for David Copperfield, you should do that for every role. Who embodies the spirit of the part?
It’s something that’s been going on in the theater for decades. There’s something about film which encourages people to be very, very literal, and the filmmakers who appeal to me are the ones that are more experimental. If you look at a Chaplin or Buster Keaton film, the liberties they take are great. And there’s something about comedy as well that encourages us to disrupt the form, and to be more surprising with the way we approach the subject. I felt, why shouldn’t I be able to cast from 100 percent of the actors that are available to me? Why should I say to people of certain backgrounds, “No, you can’t take part in this?” It just seems pointless, and stupid. And if we are to make an industry out of period-dramas, I think we should address it.
Given that the film is an exploration of class, I wanted to discuss the British royal family, which strikes me as such a strange concept. It’s become a cottage industry.
It is like an industry now. It’s a tourist attraction—like a theme park. It’s our Disneyland, basically, where if you come to London, you’ll see people on horses in strange hats moving very slowly in rhythm. There is no other purpose, other than giving us a figurehead, in times of COVID and so on. Some person that we can focus on as our head of state.
Do you find it grotesque as well? We certainly celebrate ostentatious displays of class and wealth here in America as well, but is there something you find unseemly about the British royal family in 2020? That people are still celebrating so-called “royalty?’
It’s weird. I think we’re going through a debate as to what it is we should be celebrating and who. The whole business with Prince Andrew, and even Prince Harry trying to resign from being a royal—even though it’s something you’re born with, and you can turn down all the privileges that go with it but you can’t not be the queen’s grandson. You can’t stop being that. And so therefore it is bringing up all sorts of questions as to what exactly this thing is, really.
I’m curious what you think of the British royal family though, in 2020.
I don’t know! As I said, it’s a much more grown-up version of Disneyland, with the pageantry, and a group of familiar faces that we somehow buy into. Not that it’s a bad thing or anything, it just feels more artificial now than ever before. And I think we recognize the artifice. We accept it as being a bit weird, and a bit artificial.
I read that your father wrote for an anti-fascist newspaper. How were your politics shaped by his?
He did when he was very young. This was in the lead-up to the war, and then he fought against Mussolini and the fascists. But he died when I was about 16 or 17, when he was in his late-50s, so I didn’t really get a chance to talk at great length about his experiences. Like a lot of that generation, actually, after the war he sort of didn’t want to talk about it. He wanted us to learn about it, remember it, and study it, but he didn’t want to talk about it. I think it’s because so many bad things happened that it became unbearable. I think it’s something that that generation wanted to bury and not address again, because it was so unspeakable.
“… it just feels more artificial now than ever before. And I think we recognize the artifice. We accept it as being a bit weird, and a bit artificial.”
So it’s not like he pushed anti-fascism on us growing up, but he wanted us to be aware of politics, and to be aware of what was going on in the world, and to read the press, and to watch the news, rather than say, “Oh, I’m not interested.” Because he grew up at a time when it was crucial to be interested. It was life or death. And I think we’re seeing that now. There’s a whole generation growing up now who are going, “No, we have to be interested. The fate of the planet, or the fate of democracy, or the fate of people’s survival depends on it. We have to come out and participate in this. We can’t just let other people make the decisions.”
It’s fascinating because Trump and other authoritarian leaders are actually attempting to paint anti-fascists as the enemy, which must have seemed ludicrous to your father’s generation.
Yes, exactly! There was some Republican senator [Tommy Tuberville], I think it was on Veteran’s Day, who was talking about how proud he was of his father who went over to Europe to fight against socialism. And you’re like, have you not paid attention to any of the history books? He wasn’t fighting socialism! That’s not what your father was doing!
And you were studying to become a priest but then transitioned to comedy. What made you take that hard left turn into comedy?
Oh, well I always was into comedy right from a very young age. I think it was just an adolescent thing, you know—you get obsessions. By the time I was in university and so on, the life of a priest—devoted to poverty, chastity, and obedience—I think poverty I could have coped with, but it was the chastity and obedience that I don’t think I could have coped with. And the obedience, that’s where my interest in comedy is, really, because comedy is almost wilfully disobedient in that it’s about questioning whatever truth is held out in front of you, really.
I interviewed the comedian Eric Andre recently, and we discussed why conservatives don’t make great comedians. And he said it’s because conservatives want to uphold principles and institutions, whereas liberals want to dismantle them.
Exactly! It’s behavior and institutions—that’s what conservatives want to uphold. So you find that they sound like they’re a comedian but they’re not. Trump says, “Oh, I was just making a joke.” Well, what he’s saying is not funny, it’s just provocative. I think they enjoy being disruptive and provocative—controversial—and it has the same rhythm as comedy, but it’s not comedy.
It’s more like “trolling,” as they call it nowadays.
Yes. It’s aggressive.
In one of your earliest works, Clinton: His Struggle with Dirt, you tackled the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Do you think that was the moment where U.S. politics changed forever? Where it all became theater? I mean, I remember being a kid and reading the Starr Report in The New York Times, and it was basically erotica.
It was obscene! Starr was interesting, really, because he was just obsessed with it. He wanted to dig deeper and get all the dirty stuff. He was brought in for the Whitewater stuff, to look into a real estate deal, and he ended up asking people about semen on a dress and oral sex, which is not where you think a property deal is going to take you. It says a lot for his psychology. But yes, it played out in the Oval Office, and the judiciary, and the nightly news, and it just felt so trivial, and dirty, and unseemly.
It was almost the O.J. trial of politics. But hey, we have a female veep now. Do you think Veep helped shift the public’s perception on a woman vice president?
Oh, that’s interesting. We made Selina a woman because we didn’t want people to think that if the character was male, “Is this meant to be Al Gore or Dick Cheney?” so we thought, well, let’s look forward and not back. And we just thought it was inevitable that there would be a female president or vice president very soon. Then when we made it Selina, people started asking, “Is it Sarah Palin?” and then “Is it Hillary Clinton?” But…maybe! Maybe the fact that Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] made her so alive and so real and fresh, maybe it made people think that when Kamala Harris came along, “Yeah, I think I’ve seen something like that before and it’s not such a strangely new thing.” It’s strange that throughout the whole election itself it wasn’t really a talking point. It was only when Biden was given the election that the Kamala Harris story became a big thing. Underneath all the bluster and noise of Trump, people almost forgot this very historic moment.
“Maybe the fact that Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] made her so alive and so real and fresh, maybe it made people think that when Kamala Harris came along, “Yeah, I think I’ve seen something like that before and it’s not such a strangely new thing.””
I do think these cultural examples are important, and can shift people’s perception of things. Planting the image in people’s minds helps lay the groundwork.
There is that story of how having a Black president in 24 kind of made people not think of Obama as so outlandishly, unexpectedly new. People had already bought into the idea. It’s interesting. I can’t speak to the effect that it’s had, but if it’s had that effect, that’s good!
I loved Veep. As chaotic as that show was, however, it doesn’t even hold a candle to the Trump administration. It seems remarkably tame by comparison.
Oh, no! And they don’t really commit crimes. It’s small-time stuff. It has to do with personal vulnerabilities, personal paranoias, trying to fix something that you accidentally broke but not wanting people to know that you broke it, and these everyday crises everyone has of trying to get through the day. It’s about that, really. But it does feel like it belongs to a different era now. Hopefully Biden-Harris will be a reset.
Do you feel the insanity of the Trump administration has made it more difficult to satirize politics?
It’s all so slightly fictional now, isn’t it? The worst excesses are the QAnon conspiracy theory, but now, Trump is trying to sell this narrative that he will be president for the next four years, and a lot of his supporters will spend the next four years thinking that he is president—that they’re in the second Trump administration—because what is real and what isn’t real, the distinction between them is less obvious. And when you have a president that is fundamentally trying to nurture the false narrative, then that’s what you get. It’s become its own entertainment, and a commentary on itself, so I don’t know where you go if you want to do a comedic take on it other than just pointing this out or countering it by expressing facts, which is what John Oliver does with his team of researchers, I suppose. He’s sort of doing journalism. Trump is the clown, and comedians have become investigative reporters. How can you exaggerate someone who is an exaggeration?
Has your interest been piqued at all by the Trump years? Do you have any interest in taking it on?
Perhaps not explicitly but it’s very much rigged into Season 2 of Avenue 5, which we’ve been writing all through the last six months. It’s very much touched by it in many ways, in terms of people trying to sell stories that are not true, people buying into stories that are not true, people realizing that leadership is just how you look even if you’re fictional, as well as paranoia that we’re all going to die.